Borderopolis: ‘Green’ House Olympics in DC

by September 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm 1,761 0

University of Maryland Watershed House, Solar Decathlon, Troy Urman, Borderstan

Visitors wait in line last Saturday for the University of Maryland Watershed house at the Solar Decathlon. (Troy Urman)

From Troy Urman. Email him at [email protected].

Despite threatening clouds, crowds and mushy ground this weekend, I spent Saturday afternoon in West Potomac Park checking out a ‘green’ village. Really it was a collection of envelope-pushing, energy efficient houses that college students from around the globe have erected for the Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon.

Saving the planet, one single-family home at a time. The 2011 DOE Solar Decathlon is happening right in our backyard.

This is the fifth incarnation of the event, first launched in 2002, designed to foster competition between collegiate teams to “design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.” At root, this is an effort to bring ‘green’ to the masses. One fantastic by-product of this competition is the grooming of a generation of college students with hands-on experience in the green building industry and construction coordination.

Meet the Green Neighbors

Twenty small houses populate the grounds, arranged in a loose ‘neighborhood’ where visitors can walk amongst the diverse buildings and queue up at houses they want to tour. Some visitors wait for an hour or more just to see a favorite house — the University of Maryland’s Watershed is particularly popular, and is the competition front-runner (at the writing of this piece.)

Vote for your favorite house, check out all the houses, and stay up to date on competition score at

Each house competes on 10 separate criteria (this is a ‘decathlon’ remember), from Energy Balance to Market Appeal. Points are awarded in each category either subjectively or objectively — half are juried (i.e. Market Appeal) and half from hard data (i.e., net electricity production/consumption.) This year brought in an important new category: Affordability.

Many of the houses have ‘green’ written all over them — prominent solar panel arrays, butterfly wing roof lines and wood slats galore. Others are ultra modern in appearance (SCI-Arch/CalTech’s CHIP) or bordering on the mundane (Purdue’s INhome). Whatever the style, the variety itself proves an important point — there’s no such thing as a ‘green style.’ What makes a home Earth-friendly has little to do with its look, but everything to do with performance.

Due to the logistical challenges of a tight 10-day construction period and the distances many houses must travel to compete, nearly all of the houses arrived in large, pre-assembled parts on flatbeds and were quickly erected and finished on site — basically pre-fab construction.

Features such as elaborate glazing and mechanical systems were often fabricated off-site in controlled conditions, to avoid complications during construction. Some of the teams have the benefit of previous experience, and in my view, the competition as a whole has brought out increasingly better end results with each bi-annual competition. Fewer houses this year exhibited that shoddy, slapped together look I remember from many previous competitions. Some even look ready for move-in.

The Future of Sustainable Design

While touring the Team Florida FLEX House, I spent a few minutes chatting on the porch with a student lead for his team’s Market Appeal contest. Answering my annoying questions with ease, Chris Zalapi was knowledgeable about each aspect of the home’s efficiency features and vernacular architectural cues. Bringing his experience as an licensed engineer and green building consultant, he participated on the team while earning his MBA at University of South Florida.

Counter to what one might expect, Chris said the multi-University teams such as Team Florida (made up of four different Florida universities), did not necessarily benefit from their size when it came to fundraising. In fact, the management of so many designers and managers working together was a lesson in coordination throughout the project. These were just some of the challenges faced by the student teams, in addition to the difficulties of design by committee, procurement of materials and the physical labor of constructing a house!

Location, Location, Location

Temporarily overtaking the softball fields on Ohio Drive, adjacent to the Tidal Basin, the FDR Memorial and the shiny new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, these low slung houses and the buzz that surrounds them are well worth the walk. While there is shuttle available from the Smithsonian Metro Station, the wait was as long as the hike, so my buddy and I preferred to hoof it. Not a bad view and a quick stop at MLK, it was very worth the sweat.

Personally, I think the DOE did a disservice to all involved by hosting their pet PR venture this far off the beaten path. In fact, some teams dropped out due to the unexpected change in location. All previous events were hosted on the National Mall, giving the impressive hard work and innovation of the competing teams the spotlight they so deserved. Each time around, attendance has grown, with the most recent (2009) Solar Decathlon drawing some 300,000 visits through the houses.

I hope this year’s remote location doesn’t hinder popularity and public exposure. And in the future, they’d be wise to bring it back to the Mall. But don’t let that stop you. Take a long walk or short bike ride down from Borderstan and choose your own favorite house. Tell us what you think. Or better yet, find something you can do in your own home to make a difference. Hurry though, before this exciting event wraps up this Sunday!


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